Thoughts about Cesar Millan

Cesar's Way, by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier

Self-proclaimed “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan is arguably America’s most well-known dog trainer, thanks in large part to his TV show, “The Dog Whisperer,” on the National Geographic Channel. I have watched his show many times myself, interested in seeing how this well-known man was purportedly rehabilitating problem dogs.

When I started my project of researching dogs, many people told me that I should read Cesar Millan’s books and watch his show. I see dog owners making that “pssh” sound and poking their dogs in the side like Millan does on his show. The general dog-owning public seems very fond of Millan and his methods.

But I’ll be honest. Based on what I had seen from his show, I was reluctant to read his books. This is because I didn’t really see Millan as a trainer. I couldn’t divine what his actual training techniques were, apart from physical corrections and murky statements about “calm, assertive energy.”

Having started my dog research among other positive training books, I quickly realized that Millan is not held in high regard among behaviorists and positive trainers. The more I watched his show, the more I realized that they were right. Millan, while well intentioned, advocates negative reinforcement and physical punishment techniques to an untrained general public.

I decided to read Cesar’s Way because I felt that I should at least read what he had to say before I completely dismissed him. My friend Liz gave me a copy of his book. I read it quickly, as it was not difficult to get through.

On the whole, I was impressed with Millan’s rags-to-riches story. He came to America as an undocumented immigrant and worked his way up from a car washer to a dog trainer. He got his big break when he was picked up by Jada Pinkett Smith, who sought his help in rehabilitating the family rottweilers. It is a nice story and as the reader, you are pulling for him to succeed and beat the odds. He certainly did.

The one other thing I liked about this book was Millan’s emphasis on exercise. Americans themselves don’t exercise nearly enough, and so it’s a no-brainer that our dogs probably aren’t getting any exercise, either. Cesar’s Way devotes a whole chapter to the importance of “The Walk” and the daily communion with your dog outdoors. I am a huge proponent of this idea and the notion of walking your dog being a time of companionship and communication certainly resonated with me.

Cesar Millan and Tony Cardenas at the League of CA Cities 2010 Conference & CA Latino Caucus
Source: Flickr, user gocardenas

But my admiration for Millan’s training recommendations ended there.

One of my main issues with Millan’s philosophy is that he is constantly comparing dogs in America to dogs in Mexico. Dogs in Mexico roamed free in packs, leash-less, without any training. I don’t deny that that sounds like an ideal life for any dog, but that kind of lifestyle is simply not feasible for canines in 21st-century America. We have leash laws. Dogs need to be neutered. They need to be trained how to walk on streets and greet people in public. Millan’s Dog Psychology Center in California is a nice idea, but it is thoroughly unhelpful to anyone who doesn’t live with a roaming pack of 30 dogs (which I imagine is most people). It’s nice that he’s able to make the dogs get along in a massive pack, but that is not how those dogs will be living on a daily basis when they get back home. Trying to make American dogs into Mexican dogs is not the solution. But that is what it seems that Millan keeps trying to do.

My second issue with Millan is his unabashed use and promotion of negative reinforcement training and physical punishments. In Cesar’s Way, he acknowledges that he is unpopular among positive trainers for his reliance on these dated methods, but he insists that they are effective. He even devotes a section of the book that recommends doing an “alpha roll” on a dominant dog, which absolutely floored me. I thought this medieval form of punishment had disappeared in the dark ages of dog training, but apparently not. This is one of the real dangers of Millan’s popularity, in my opinion. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, famed veterinarian and writer, had this to say about Cesar Millan:

Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, will be only transitory. His methods are misguided, outmoded, in some cases dangerous, and often inhumane. You would not want to be a dog under his sphere of influence. The sad thing is that the public does not recognize the error of his ways. My college thinks it is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavioral Clinic at Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Another issue I have with Millan is his reliance on the old-fashioned paradigm of dominance and pack mentality. Millan would have us believe that our dogs are out to get us and always looking for an opportunity to usurp us. I simply don’t believe this is true, and I’m not the only one. Cognitive researcher and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin wrote directly about how Millan’s techniques are outdated and simply wrong in her book Animals Make Us Human. Dogs do not live in packs, Grandin points out, and it’s a misinformed way to think about a dog’s social unit. Rather, like wolves, dogs live in families where parents care for the pups in a partnership. Treating dogs like they are obsessed with dominance is a grave injustice to our canine companions. For more on this, I highly recommend an article published in 2006 in the New York Times by author Mark Derr, “Pack of Lies.”

The good thing I will say about Millan is that he has been successful in raising awareness of how we have failed our dogs in training and teaching. The bad thing is that the methods he advocates are archaic, cruel, and generally unhelpful to most people. But don’t just take my word for it: See a collection of qualified opinions about how we need to move away from this “Dog Whisperer” at the website Beyond Cesar Millan.

What do you think about Cesar Millan? Is he awesome? Overrated? Misunderstood?